Scientific Study Proves Maui County Wastewater Discharges Endanger Beach Water Quality

County’s sewage injections traced to West Maui coastal waters


Caroline Ishida, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436


Hannah Bernard, Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, (808) 280-8124


Lucienne deNaie, Sierra Club – Maui Group, (808) 214-0147


Lance D. Collins, West Maui Preservation Association, (808) 243-9292

Scientists from the University of Hawaiʻi have released a final study vindicating the concerns of Maui citizen groups that sued Maui County last year under the federal Clean Water Act and state water quality laws for illegally discharging wastewater into the ocean near a popular beach, Kahekili Beach, from its Lahaina treatment facility’s injection wells.

For 30 years, the County has been dumping wastewater from its Lahaina facility into injection wells that connect underground to the ocean. In April 2012, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club-Maui Group, and West Maui Preservation Association, charging that the wastewater, containing nutrient pollution, pharmaceuticals, and until a federal consent decree forced the County to disinfect, bacteria and other pathogens, was making its way into the ocean near popular Kahekili Beach, endangering the public, contributing to toxic algal growth, and harming the sensitive coral reef ecosystem.

The study concluded that nearly two-thirds of the injected wastewater reaches coastal waters via submarine springs, which discharge pollutants that “impact coastal water quality and result in elevated nutrient concentrations.”

Read The Report

Kahekili Beach. Maui citizen groups have charged that wastewater is making its way into the ocean near popular Kahekili Beach.

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In July 2011, University of Hawaiʻi researchers put dye into the injection wells to trace the wastewater’s path to the coast. A few months later, they detected the dye flowing out of seeps in coastal waters at Kahekili Beach. The study analyzed the results of scientific monitoring in that area over the past two years, and “confirms that a hydrogeologic connection exists” between the injection wells and nearshore waters. It concluded that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the injected wastewater reaches coastal waters via submarine springs, which discharge pollutants that “impact coastal water quality and result in elevated nutrient concentrations.” The study also found that the wastewater coming out of the seeps is warmer, more acidic, and less salty than surrounding ocean water.

The groups are currently involved in settlement talks with the County to find a way to protect nearshore West Maui water quality and coral reefs from the illegal wastewater discharges.

Algal bloom at Kahekili Beach, Maui in 2006.

Photo Courtesy of Meghan Dailer

The groups commented as follows:

Caroline Ishida, Earthjustice attorney:
“This study confirms what we’ve been saying for years: Wastewater injected at the Lahaina facility travels underground and ends up in the ocean offshore of Kahekili Beach, polluting coastal waters. We’re currently engaged in settlement talks with Maui County, trying to come up with a solution to this problem as quickly as possible.”

Hannah Bernard, Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund:
“This independent, expert report validates our longstanding concerns about the connection between the County’s injection wells and the ocean. There is no longer any room for debate that the Lahaina injection wells are discharging volumes of nutrients and other pollutants into the reef off Kahekili Beach, highlighting the urgent need to put an end to these discharges.”

Angela Howe, Surfrider Foundation:
“Kahekili Beach is a popular area for swimming, snorkeling, and other recreation in West Maui, but this study shows that the injection wells discharge nutrients and other pollutants into the shallow, nearshore waters, which degrades water quality. We look forward to coming up with a solution that reduces this pollution for the benefit of everyone that uses these waters.”

Lucienne deNaie, Sierra Club – Maui Group:
“None of us has a crystal ball that can show us what impacts climate change and ocean acidification will ultimately have on our reefs. We need to solve the injection well problem to eliminate a source of pollution to our nearshore waters that we do have control over.”

Lance Collins, West Maui Preservation Association:
“The studies are done. Now is the time to act to stop and reverse the damage to the nearshore waters of Kahekili Beach.”

Read the University of Hawaiʻi groundwater tracer study.

Additional Resources

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